Tuesday, December 11, 2018

God Is Still Speaking*

Wait a minute:

Many modern American Christians believe that that the Bible is inerrant. That is to say, it contains no mistakes, no inconsistencies, and no inaccuracies. Of course, believing that the Bible has no mistakes assumes that the Bible is a complete and fully polished collection of works. But a new book on the writing of the Gospels blows this assumption out of the water and suggests, for the first time, that the gospels—the books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life–were not finished products. One of the versions that we have—the Gospel of Mark, the earliest one–might never have been intended for publication and was more like a rough draft or collection of notes than a book.

I know it's common practice to treat all scholarship, and especially Biblical scholarship (because it's on a subject so many think they are familiar with), as non-existent until someone publishes something (hello, Jesus Seminar!  We still remember you!) that seems to challenge the conventional wisdom (which is neither conventional nor wise, just like nu-clear physics ain't so new and it ain't so clear.) But while "many modern American Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant," many more don't, and never have.  Especially if by "inerrant" you mean so factually correct as to be beyond cavil.  How, for example, do you reconcile the nativity stories?  Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem, then fleeing to Egypt, and returning to live in Nazareth, so Jesus can be (as he was known, in his time), a Nazarene.  Luke has them travel to Bethlehem for the census (of which there is no record) and return to Nazareth.  No flight to Egypt, no star (modern directors of planteriums take note!), no magi two years later.  Which is it? And which one is in error, since both can't be "inerrant"?

But it gets sillier, because reporting on scholarship without context sort of makes you wonder how many reporters are reporting on current events without understanding (in the case of the Mueller investigation and what it is doing as a criminal justice probe, that covers a lot of ground):

In Gospels Before Book, Matthew Larsen, a member of the Society of Fellows at Princeton, examines ancient writing and “publishing” practices. Most scholars believe that the four New Testament gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—were written between 70-120 CE. Larsen discovered that prior to the second century people didn’t talk about the gospels as “Gospels” or books. In fact, he says, “the very idea that there are four separate, finished, and fully authored books called the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” is one of the “more significant ideological invention[s]” of the late second century.

I'm not familiar with this particular line of argument, but I'm not at all shocked by it. The canon wasn't set until the 4th century, so it took awhile to even decide what books were allowed. And "gospel" didn't start out as a noun of particular application; again, not a surprise.  I don't think there's anything reported out of this book in this article that actually breaks new scholarly ground.  Yet it is reported here as breathlessly as the actions of the Jesus Seminar in voting on what portions of the gospel were closest to the historical Jesus (Hint:  that was a product of guesswork as much as sound scholarship).  Take this as an example:

David is not the author of the “Book of Psalms” but, rather, is a figure that gradually colonizes an increasing number of texts. 
He's not even that, any more than Solomon was a wise ruler.  Solomon hired scholars who, working for him, created the wisdom he took credit for (not unlike a modern employer who owns the inventions of its employees).  David has not been considered the author of the Psalms for as long as Moses has not been considered the author of the Pentateuch. David "colonized" the prayers of the Psalms by being famous, not by his editorial decisions.  And honestly, doesn't anybody remember The Book of 'J' that Harold Bloom got so much mileage out of (none of it for Biblical scholarship)?  Scholars have known most of what is in this article for 150 years; the authors cited are just putting particular spins on old data.  I'm not sure their work is much more interesting than Bloom's on "J", though I'd be uncharitable to be that harsh without studying their books first.

What all of this means is that at least some of texts that make up our modern Bibles may never have been intended as set-in-stone “books.”

What she means (though she doesn't know it) is that in this context 'books' is an anachronism as much as "novel" would be (the novel originated in the late 18th century), and also that, recalling the "discovery" of The Book of 'J', there are four identified strands in the Pentateuch (J,E, D, P), each representing separate authorship by groups, not one person.  And need I go into the "Q" hypothesis behind Matthew and Luke, or the accepted notion that "Matthew" and "Mark" are just designations of tradition, not identifiers of individuals who lived and wrote under those names, their gospels faithfully transmitted just as they wrote them, with no alterations whatsoever (an idea that's laughable, if you know anything about transmission of texts and textual criticism.  The Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament is full of footnotes noting variants in almost every verse of every "book")?  And I haven't even gotten to the pseudepigrapha of Paul.

Rather than assuming that there is a solid text (whether inerrant or not), they suggest that some of the books we hold as sacred scripture were fluid and amorphous textual traditions that were not only open to augmentation and interpretation; they in fact demand it. 

Which is where the Midrash comes in, but that's yet another subject most Gentiles are ignorant of.  Part of the tradition of Scripture is argument over what that scripture says and means. It's a tradition practically as old as Scripture itself.  Even if Scripture is inerrant (a 20th century Christian fringe notion), intepretation of it isn't.  The argument in this article sounds like a very modern idea, but in fact it's very ancient.  Partly the "fluid and amorphous textual traditions" reflects the transition from oral to written literature.  The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, were all changed because they were written down (indeed, Tolkien proved beyond cavil that the "Beowulf" we have is a Christian version of a pagan story).  It's old news to say so, but it also makes the texts new again, because it makes the texts separate from us (as it is from its authors; po-mo won't let us go!), and that makes the texts a greater object of reverence and insight than if we think of them as "ours."  And reducing them to concepts like "inerrant" and "infallible" and "literally true" is the worst kind of idolatry.

Idolatry, by the way, is something the "books" of the Bible ("Bible" itself means "Books"; you could look it up. It's not what the Jews called their scripture, so this idea is another Gentile overlay) provide plenty of ammunition against.  Huh.  Who knew?

*a slogan of the United Church of Christ. No surprise if you've never heard of it. But then the UCC is not a fundamentalist denomination, so why would you?


  1. I'd think that when Paul said that Jesus was like us in everything except sin, it's a reasonable conclusion that if you believe that you believe that Jesus was capable of being mistaken. It strikes me as impious to hold that any of the other authors of any of the other books of the Bible had an ability that Paul doesn't claim for Jesus.

    It strikes me as rather funny, the "news" that people would discover that not all of the Scriptures are of equal status, as if anyone has ever, in history, read them as if every word must be known and implemented. No one in history as done that. No one has ever done it with any book of any length, no one even does it with short documents supposedly having the status of law.

    I heard a recording of Brueggemann noting that that arch strict originalist of the Constitution, Scalia, rather strangely ALWAYS found that the original meaning meant exactly what he'd always wanted it to mean.

  2. Always thought Scalia's exegesis was more a knee-jerk reaction to post-modernism than a well-reasoned system. And power-no rediscovered that your analysis concludes where you wanted it to. Not that judicial realists didn't know that, but Scalia wasn't really very good with jurisprudence.

    Infallibility is just a way of saying my interpretation cannot be challenged. Nice work, if you can get it.